Paul Greenberg and Rick Mijares believe something. They believe that millennials are nostalgic for a time they didn't live through. American Social, the long-anticipated waterside restaurant adjacent to Jackson's on Harbour Island, reads like a sports bar from 1995. There is unironic use of plaid, Life magazines framed and crowded onto brick walls, a tomato-soup paint color that every New England dining room sported in the mid-'90s, brass multi-armed light fixtures with frosted glass, judicious use of blue and red neon and AMERICAN SOCIAL BAR & KITCHEN spelled out in a clean, serif, all-cap font. Plus, televisions everywhere. In short, it is the sports bar of my youth.
This is their third American Social, the first opening in 2012 on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and the second launching last year in the downtown Miami Brickell area. The Tampa choice of location is not accidental. In the shadow of the Westin and next to Jackson's, which shares precise audience demographics with AmSo, it's in a spot poised to benefit from Jeff Vinik's highly anticipated Channelside construction, from an influx of young professionals (University of South Florida medical school, new condo construction, etc.) and from a real paucity of restaurant competition on Harbour Island.
It opened Oct. 30 and promptly threw a huge Halloween bash. Let's take a peek at the party pics on Yelp: sexy pirates, scantily clad skeletons, lots of those pneumatically enhanced superhero costumes. (Looking good, Wonder Women.) It was instantly cemented as a destination for Tampa's youngish party people.
I see two challenges, the first of which may fix itself over time. Because of the crush of new restaurants opening on both sides of the bay in recent months, good help is hard to find. Competent hospitality workers have their pick of loads of promising new places — bartenders, hosts and servers at AmSo are green, many lacking the polish or the institutional knowledge that comes with being in the business for a while (serve the oysters before the entrees, bring appropriate silverware before you drop the plates off, those kinds of things). If Greenberg and Mijares have the inclination and wherewithal, service will get honed over time, but right now it can be hit or miss.
The second challenge is trickier, and may reflect my own sense of the rough meritocracy that is the restaurant world. When a new restaurant opens, I ask myself what new thing it brings to the table, what fresh niche or need it fills. Before its opening, I spoke with Mijares about the restaurant's culinary focus: "upscale sports bar and farm-to-table restaurant." Huh, that's a mashup I haven't seen before. As it stands, though, there's nothing particularly "farm-to-table" about AmSo, no farm identifiers or name-brand proteins beyond Cedar Key clams and gulf pink shrimp, nothing that seems particularly seasonal or Florida-centric. It's burgers and flatbreads and mac and cheese and fairly straightforward American pub food, all things we have quite a bit of already in the greater downtown area.
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In a couple of visits I worked through a number of competent but unremarkable dishes (a cedar-planked salmon with roasted potatoes, $27, and a New York strip with whipped potatoes and broccolini, $39), but there were some items where the price tag stuck in my craw. I have extremely high expectations of a $19.50 burger in Tampa (that's New York City prices!) and AmSo's barbecue bacon burger failed to wow me. Two patties, but still that's a lot of green for workhorse fries and a sandwich.
The other two locations focus more on sharables, Tampa getting a larger assortment of hold-your-own entrees due to its proximity to the convention center. (Conventioneers don't like to share?) Looking around the dining room it does seem like most folks are there in small groups, drinking more of the priority (familiar beers and wines, fairly normal markup) so that sharing some small plates seems appropriate: A plate of simple grilled chicken skewers sitting on a bed of hummus with a handful of pita chips ($15), beef strip loin sliders with a kicky horseradish sauce and nice Bibb lettuce ($16.50) and a trio of corn tortillas cradling slow-braised brisket, peppers and a cilantro lime aioli ($15) were all appealing, easy finger foods. But you clocked those prices, right?
Perhaps AmSo and Jackson's will work synergistically to be a magnetic pull to Tampa's young professionals seeking a fun time and water views. Spend a little time at one, zip next door to the other, repeat. American Social is banking on diners drawn by comfort and familiarity, but in an increasingly interesting culinary landscape, I wonder if familiarity is enough.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced;
the Times pays all expenses.